All this week (5-9 April), you can find a free premiere each night from Ross McGregor’s Talking Gods series of new plays on the website of theatre company Arrows & Traps, who specialise in classic adaptations and historical new writing.
Each looks at a story from one of the old gods, who are now resident among us in the 21st century and finding it somewhat challenging to fit in. These stories are more detailed and longer than those in the 2020 series from the Jermyn Street Theatre, 15 Heroines, but they make good companion pieces, with their strong female characterisations.
After meeting the goddess of love briefly in Pygmalion, she takes centre stage in my favourite of the series so far. Beautifully played by Benjamin Garrison, who can scare you half to death and then break your heart in one speech centring on her regret on never successfully completing a pregnancy of her own. She envies mortals for their ability to choose, knowing that as an Olympian her fate is always tied to the Fates. Husband Hephaestus is a toymaker who toils in his workshop producing wooden blocks and tin soldiers, but it is the god of war, Ares, who captures her heart.
Ares (Buck Braithwaite) is a mass of contradictions. When we meet him, in some form of therapy, he hears screaming all the time in his head and clearly suffers from PTSD and has headed into prize fighting to soothe the urge for violence he has been cursed with. He calls himself “the god of war, but not of winning war”. It is a lovely, nuanced performance that could have easily teetered over the edge: Braithwaite’s performance and McGregor’s writing and direction pulls it back.
There are a lot of names to digest in this play. At first, I was stopping and starting, Googling names and stories, but then decided this story and its interpretation was the most important thing, and if I, as a viewer, needed to know more about Caliope, Athena, or the son of Poseidon, all would be revealed. There are funny moments, as there have been in the previous plays: a baby so over-endowed he is the subject of texts between friends, a Kurdish window cleaner and a bearskin rug, and the distaste Aphrodite feels about the “f-ing wine bar” that has opened next to her club, where all the half-sozzled men desert to at the stag do of Dionysius.
Tragedy, too. Ares has “never been more powerful and never felt more lost”. His parents failed to show him understanding or affection, and his eyes are empty, regretful, and soft behind the sheen of toughness. He could break you in an instant, but it might hurt his heart to do it. As for Aphrodite, for all her bravado she is a woman in grief: her Amazon basket story had me in tears as it was so truthful and such a moment of openness.
The “tree baby” section does not add a lot, except for bringing back Nicolle Smartt and her trio of characters from Persephone. I suppose it emphasises that Aphrodite is not concerned with family, only the set-up and act which leads to the birth of children, but I found this the weakest link in the piece. Better was the brief reappearance of Pygmalion, co-designing some kind of dating site under the name of Eros.
In places the sound balance overshadows Garrison’s speeches with music, always something I notice when watching a screener without captions. I wanted the words to speak for themselves, as they were so well-written. When Aphrodite is invited to Hestia’s home and hearth, her joy is evident behind that face that does so much to try and hide emotion. She is a true pioneer of love in all its forms, a beacon for freedom and for choice.
This story of Icarus is not the one you learned in school: the one about the boy with waxed wings flying too close to the sun. Now, he is a journalist, a city type in a suit, who remembers a good relationship with his father and with nature. He is covering the trial of Zeus which we first heard of in Persephone, and which is responsible for the unrest and pestilence currently at large in the world, including the closure of Ariadne’s beloved theatres.
This is a tale of double-dealing, of family secrets, academic subterfuge, and mysterious deaths – namely one which happened when Dionysius and his friends left that wine bar Aphrodite complained about in the previous play. Icarus (Adam Elliott) loved his dad but wonders if they would have been friends “if he was not obliged to love me.” An unsettling meeting with Hestia (Nicolle Smartt) leaves the journalist seeking answers of his own rather than hassling others.
There are moments I really loved in this play. Hestia, goddess of home and hearth, reaching for the cup of cold tea and rewarming it. Icarus recalling an interview with Ares, where “his shoulders cracked like old leather.” Icarus’s mother, reeling from her husband’s death, enduring scam telephone calls. And, of course, the nod to the closure of theatres and our hope that live performance to full houses will return.
With a trip to the Underworld with Ariadne (Lucy Ioannou) where Eurydice (Charlie Ryall) is now an efficient desk clerk, dispensing words of wisdom, there are nods to all the other plays. Icarus is made a father himself, cuddling a makeshift baby, with the “heart [that] beats for you in a tiny bed at home.” Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters, and brothers.
I would like to see Ariadne take centre stage is there is a second season of the Talking Gods plays, as we get a glimpse of her here, but guess there is much more to explore and reveal about her “impoverished, insecure, stressful” life.
Talking Gods premieres each night from 5 April 2021 at 7.30pm, and each episode is followed by a live Q&A. They are all free to view and will also be available on the Arrows & Traps YouTube channel.